Richard Loe: Fiery French can't get too foul any more

By Richard Loe

After last week's result against France, I just had to ring a couple of French people I know there - just to see what they thought of the All Blacks, you understand.

They told me that while the French of 2006 had a lot of big men, they didn't have many hard men.

I took that with a pinch of salt, even though it was clear from the test that the All Blacks again did over the French front row and tight five. You will most likely be reading this column after this morning's game is over and I will be very surprised if you are not discussing the increased physical approach of the French.

There would have been all sorts of appeals to their passion and pride and they would have come out of the dressing room like raging bulls. However, the way the game is set up these days, they can't get too frisky with the foul play.

Which is what has happened in the past, of course. I played against volatile players such as Eric Champ, the fiery French flanker. I can reveal that if you belt people like him, it just makes them worse. Wayne Shelford's much publicised re-acquaintance with his scrotum after French attention in 1986 is just one example of French brutality.

I remember playing in Nantes in 1990 - the tour after that infamously physical test in Nantes in 1986 - and packing down in an All Black front row with Steve McDowell and Sean Fitzpatrick. We were up against Pascal Ondarts, hooker Louis Armary and a prop called Laurent Seigne.

Before the game, you sometimes like to eyeball the opposition, just to see if you can get a bit of a psychological edge on them. But, before this test, as we brushed shoulders with the French, Fitzy said to me: "Have a look at that." There was Ondarts head-butting the wall. I'm not kidding.

When the game started, their front row got up to their tricks until Steve McDowell sorted it out. When the ball was sent wide from the next scrum, by the time it came back again, there was a French prop, Seigne, mysteriously asleep on the ground. The All Blacks won 24-3 and Seigne was replaced for the next test.

It wouldn't happen these days and fair enough, too. In fact, the way these All Blacks play shows how brains and technique triumph over brawn anyway.

I know some were surprised Graham Henry chose to play Ma'a Nonu and Mils Muliaina together but, like I said last week, I rate Muliaina as the best centre (although I have to admit Conrad Smith played very well last week).

Like so much of the rest of the All Black team, Henry has different players and depth in the midfield who can slot in and do the business. I have no doubt Aaron Mauger will be there when the big games are on. He's a senior player now, with a big-game temperament, a kicking game and a fine tactical sense.

But if Nonu comes off, that is just one more excellent option Henry has up his sleeve.

The locks - Chris Jack and Ali Williams - were a fair enough selection, too. Williams had an excellent game last week, freed up so he could get around the paddock like an extra loose forward. But this is a horse-for-courses selection. If this was the South Africans or even the English, I think Keith Robinson would be in there.

That's the joy of the depth Henry has developed - the opposition must be having a hell of a time trying to analyse the All Blacks.

The only other player not selected in my No 1 team was Piri Weepu. Here, I have to acknowledge that Byron Kelleher, on form, deserves his place. I have not always been in Kelleher's corner but have to admit he's done well.

Weepu has seemingly gone back from being No 1 to No 3 halfback - but I did think he had bulked up a bit and wasn't as agile as the other two.

However, see if I'm right - this is a bit of a wake-up call and these All Blacks will get it right and get Weepu right.

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